Evidence continues to emerge, both scientific and historical, suggesting that the way the majority of us sleep may not actually be good for us.
In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a paper that included over 15 years of research. It cited an overwhelming amount of historical evidence revealing that, in fact, humans used to sleep in two different chunks.
In 2005, he published a book titled At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, which included more than 500 references to a disjointed sleeping pattern. It presented diaries, medical books, literature, and more taken from various sources ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to the sleep habits of modern tribes in Nigeria. “It’s not just the number of references ,” he says, but also “the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge.”
What the Research Found
Ekirch’s research found that we didn’t always sleep for an average of eight hours straight. Instead, we would sleep in two shorter periods throughout the night. All sleep would occur within a 12 hour timeframe that began with three or four hours of sleep, followed by a period of wakefulness lasting another three hours or so, and concluding with further sleep until the morning.
There was also some research done in the early 1990s by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. He conducted an experiment where 15 men were put into complete darkness for 14 hours a day for an entire month. By the fourth week the participants had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern: the same bimodal sleeping pattern that Ekirch described. The subjects slept for approximately four hours, woke for another few, and then went back to sleep until morning.
Ekirch also discovered when our sleep habits changed, noticing that “references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society. By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.”
Possible Reasons Why We Slept This Way
One reason could be that this type of segmented sleep is what really comes naturally to the human body. At least, that’s what Wehr’s experiment would suggest, but there are other theories.
As historian Craig Koslofsky writes, “Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good. The night was a place populated by people of disrepute – criminals, prostitutes and drunks. Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night.”
Things changed, however, in 1667, when Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets. Eventually staying up at night became the social norm throughout Europe. And then the industrial revolution happened. “People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century, but the industrial revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds,” says Ekirch.
Eventually, we got to the point where parents were forcing their children to sleep at a certain time, pushing them away from the segmented sleeping pattern followed previously.
Many Sleeping Problems May Have Roots in the Human Body’s Natural Preference for Segmented Sleep
Ekirch believes that many modern day sleeping problems have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep. He believes that our historical sleeping patterns could explain why many people suffer from a condition called “sleep maintenance insomnia,” where individuals wake in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. This type of condition first appeared at the end of the 19th century, at approximately the same time segmented sleep began to die off.
“For most of evolution we slept a certain way,” says sleep psychologist Greg Jacobs. “Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology.”
“The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging . . . if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleep and is likely to seep into waking life too,” continues Stephanie Hegarty.
According to Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, “Many people wake up at night and panic . . . [and] I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.”
Yet most doctors don’t realize that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural. “Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep. But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centers where sleep is studied,” Foster says.
As far as what people did during this in-between time of wakefulness, Ekirch’s research suggests that they primarily used the time to meditate on their dreams, read, pray, or partake in spiritual practices.
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